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Review: NSA snooping program should stay in place

By Jim Sciutto and Evan Perez, CNN
updated 5:50 PM EST, Wed December 18, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Independent report recommends metadata collection should have more safeguards
  • President Barack Obama ordered review after Edward Snowden leaks
  • Report is part of overall review of U.S. intelligence gathering
  • Report recommends new limits on spying on foreigners and foreign leaders

(CNN) -- An independent assessment of National Security Agency surveillance ordered by President Barack Obama recommends a controversial program aimed at collecting Americans' electronic communications remain in place.

But the effort predominantly covering so-called metadata relating to phone records and e-mail must have tighter constraints and greater transparency, according to the report released on Wednesday by the presidential Review Group on Intelligence.

Some 40 recommendations -- considered modest in scope -- were offered by the group on how the United States should continue collecting and storing data domestically and abroad.

Among them are calls for greater judicial oversight and more public transparency.

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National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden poses with German Green party parliamentarian Hans-Christian Stroebele in Moscow on October 31. Stroebele returned from the meeting with a letter from Snowden to German authorities, which was distributed to the media. In it, Snowden said he is confident that with international support, the United States would abandon its efforts to "treat dissent as defection" and "criminalize political speech with felony charges." National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden poses with German Green party parliamentarian Hans-Christian Stroebele in Moscow on October 31. Stroebele returned from the meeting with a letter from Snowden to German authorities, which was distributed to the media. In it, Snowden said he is confident that with international support, the United States would abandon its efforts to "treat dissent as defection" and "criminalize political speech with felony charges."
NSA leaker Edward Snowden
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"Because our adversaries operate through the use of complex communications technologies, the National Security Agency, with its impressive capabilities and talented officers, is indispensable to keeping our country and our allies safe and secure," said the report's executive summary.

The panel was created amid a political firestorm that followed leaks last summer by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The disclosures triggered outrage among civil libertarians and many members of Congress, who considered the degree of data collection an overreach of post-9/11 anti-terror efforts.

Leaks about surveillance and a secret court that works with the NSA put enormous pressure on Obama, who came into office promising a more transparent government.

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Key members of Congress are considering changes to programs under the Patriot Act law to restrict NSA snooping programs.

"The message is very clear," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said following the report's release. "NSA, you've gone too far."

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Leahy mentioned the section in law allowing telephone data collection "was not essential to preventing attacks," according to the report.

That directly contradicts national security officials, who have said the authority had helped thwart terror plots both in the United States and abroad.

"Just because we can collect massive amounts of data doesn't mean we should do so," Leahy said.

Read the report here

The review panel said that when government officials consider national security risks, they should also consider risks to privacy, freedom, civil liberties, relationships and trade with other nations.

It also recommended new limits on spying on foreigners and foreign leaders following controversy around disclosures of U.S. snooping on overseas presidents, like Germany's Angela Merkel.

The panel said intelligence officials should weigh if a foreign leader is believed to be duplicitous, if another country has a cooperative relationship with the United States and the political and diplomatic fallout if the leader became aware of such surveillance.

Heads of state in Brazil and Germany have been among those expressing recent outrage at alleged surveillance by the U.S. government in their countries.

The independent panel said spying on foreigners should only be conducted to protect national security and U.S. allies, not directed for economic issues such as trade secret theft.

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Mike Morrell, the former acting CIA director and member of the panel, said the recommendations are not "in any way disarming" the intelligence community by removing tools needed to protect the United States.

Fellow panel member Richard Clarke, a former top counter-terrorism official in two administrations, said the recommendations also are not a signal that the fight against terrorism has ended.

Additionally, Obama will deliver a speech likely in January on the path forward following the report recommendations, which include presidential oversight of monitoring of foreign leaders and agreements with nations like France and Germany on what is acceptable and what is not.

Obama met on Wednesday with members of the review group to discuss their findings.

He has to decide which of the recommendations will be accepted, which could be revised and which will be rejected.

Obama vowed this month to find ways of reforming the NSA, though he also defended the agency's work.

Release of the findings came two days after a federal judge in Washington ruled preliminarily that NSA data collection of telephone metadata was probably unconstitutional on privacy grounds.

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The group's other recommendations included:

-- Subjecting U.S. citizens and foreigners to the same privacy standards

-- Urging that the U.S. government support, and not undermine, encryption standards

-- Tightening classified information protection, including more monitoring and routine vetting of people who access classified information. And background investigations should be done by government employees or by a nonprofit private company, not for-profit firms criticized for not thoroughly vetting contractors hired by the NSA, like Snowden, the group advised.

CNN's Jim Acosta, Tom Cohen and Bill Mears contributed to this report.

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